Salted legs, ready for bed.

What a bird! Did you see those legs?

It’s that time of year again: overcrowded grocery stores and shopping malls, the din of Christmas muzak, shoppers and screaming children piercing the air. Manufactured aromas of pine and cinnamon accosting the olfactory system. A non-stop litany of black Friday commercials hammering the airwaves and, playing “dodge the careless driver” as you try to negotiate a shopping cart (with one wobbly wheel) full of groceries to the car without getting run over. What’s not to love? For most chefs, the holidays mean 16-hour days behind the stove and zero family time. Occasionally (and by “occasionally”, I mean “once a decade”), I do like to surprise my family by actually having my holiday shopping done on time and celebrating. But most years, my family is used to a phone call or an email excusing my absence from the Christmas table and letting them know that their presents will be a week late.

Humbugging aside, and regardless of whether I’m working or not, Thanksgiving dinner is one of my favorite meals to prepare. Everyone is brimming with excitement over the food, even the kids. Nobody is worrying about calorie count or food sensitivities. The drinks are flowing and the buzz can be felt in the kitchen. This year, I’m very excited to have my first Thanksgiving off since 2006. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be cooking, I certainly will. But for the first time in seven years, I’ll actually be able to sit and eat too.

Last year, I was faced with the daunting task of cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 80 people. I had 10 12-pound turkeys and 3 ovens. To avoid serving dry, overcooked or re-heated birds, I really had to strategize. Even brining can’t save a turkey from the effects of reheating – but 10 birds require 10 ovens, for a very long cooking time. I was in a quandary. Breaking down the turkeys before cooking them seemed like the only feasible option – which, of course, led me to the natural conclusion of cooking the legs confit. I mean, duh. Anyone would’ve thought of that, right?

With the help of my trusty kitchen assistant, we quartered the turkeys, made an herb butter to go under the skin of the breasts and then buried the legs under a snowy mound of kosher salt and herbs and refrigerated them overnight. As a bonus, we had plenty of backbones and necks to roast off for gravy. The next morning, after rinsing and drying the legs, we slow cooked them in six gallons of olive oil. Then, just before service, we roasted the breasts. The legs were still warm even after several hours in the the oil, they hardly needed re-heating at all.  And, with the turkeys quartered, we were able to cook all 10 turkeys between 2 industrial ovens. A miraculous feat! Afterwards, guests were raving and the kitchen was inundated with people asking how we cooked the turkeys. The next day, I received a  note from the boss saying that it was the best Thanksgiving ever. Mission accomplished.

This year, Pace Webb, fellow chef and the tastemaker behind the catering company Taste of Pace, has invited me for a turkey throw down with a bunch of stray chefs and bartenders at her event-space in the arts district in DTLA. She’s asked that I make the turkeys. You can bet that I’ll be doing them confit. I don’t think I’ll ever cook a turkey any other way again. And this year, I’ll be able to sit down and eat. I can’t wait! If you’re still deciding on how to cook your turkeys, why don’t you give turkey confit a try? Confit is a pretty fail-safe method of cooking and you’re guaranteed a juicy bird! Scroll down for my recipe!

Turkey Leg Confit & Roasted Turkey Breast with Herb Butter
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Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
3 hr
Total Time
20 hr
Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
3 hr
Total Time
20 hr
  1. 2 12-pound turkeys, quartered (backbone & wishbone removed)
Ingredients For the Confit
  1. 4 Turkey legs
  2. Kosher salt
  3. 1 bunch thyme
  4. 1/4 cup juniper berries
  5. 1/8 cup black peppercorns
  6. 4 bay leaves
  7. 20 cloves of garlic, whole
  8. About 4-6 quarts of olive oil or duck fat, warmed
Ingredients For the Herb Butter
  1. 4 Turkey Breasts, bone-in
  2. 1 cup of butter, softened
  3. 2 shallots, minced
  4. 2 tablespoon each: thyme, parsley, tarragon
  5. zest of 1 lemon
Salt your turkey legs and make your herb butter the day before you plan to cook them!
Salting for the confit
  1. Sprinkle a heavy layer of salt on a large, glass baking dish.
  2. Sprinkle with half of the thyme, juniper, black peppercorns and bay leaves.
  3. Place the turkey legs on top, add remaining herbs and spices and sprinkle with another heavy layer of salt.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For the herb butter
  1. Place butter in a food processor with shallots, thyme and lemon zest.
  2. Process until all ingredients are fully incorporated.
To Cook the Legs Confit
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, Fahrenheit.
  2. Remove turkey legs from the refrigerator. Rinse all of the salt off and pat dry.
  3. Place legs in a medium roasting pan.
  4. Add bay leaves, whole cloves of garlic and enough warm olive oil or duck fat to submerge the legs.
  5. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake until legs are very tender, about 3 hours. The garlic cloves will be soft and creamer - you'll want to serve those along with the turkey!
  6. Turkey legs can be stored several days in the fat - and they will only get better!
  7. Before serving, heat oven to 500 degrees. Remove the turkey legs from the fat. Place on a baking sheet and roast until brown and crisp, about 20 minutes.
For the breasts
  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Soften the herb butter.
  3. Using your fingers, gently loosen the skin of the turkey breasts and rub about 1/4 cup of butter under the skin of each breast.
  4. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  5. Place breasts on a roasting pan and bake until the juices run clear or meat thermometer inserted into thickest part registers 170 degrees, about 45 minutes to 1 hour (depending on size).
  6. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.
  7. Slice and serve!
  1. EDIT: I just received a message from a reader who made turkey confit in a crockpot! An even better way to save on oven space!
The Wayward Chef

photo 3

Black Bean Soup for the Soul

It’s fall here in Los Angeles, which means absolutely nothing when it comes to the weather. But I do like to throw on my heavy boots and a scarf once in a while and pretend that I’m cold.

I lived in New York City for 15 years. It was an adjustment coming from California and experiencing a real winter for the first time. The year that I arrived had one of the coldest winters on record in more than a decade. Snow was piled up to my eyeballs. I’d moved to New York with $150 to my name, a pair of leaky galoshes and a $10 pea coat from the Salvation Army. My boots and jacket were so thin I might as well have gone naked. I’d be shivering the moment I stepped outside and my toes would be so numb by the time I reached the train, I’d take my boots off inside and warm my feet between my freezing hands. I rented a room in White Plains and worked at a coffee shop on 57th Street and Lexington Avenue by day and as a cocktail waitress in the American Thread Building by night. Somehow I made time for computer programming classes on the weekends and a few nights a week. I lived on a ridiculously tight budget back then. Once, a sympathetic waiter at the restaurant, Dojo, near Washington Square let me pay for a veggie burger in subway tokens when I remembered, after ordering, that I’d spent $2 on incense and was now a few dollars short for food. My roommate and I once made our interpretation of Chinese steamed buns with Bisquick, leftover stir-fry, fried rice and the little duck sauce packets that came with our Chinese take-out. Beans and rice were also a staple of my diet back then and I probably know fifty ways to prepare them. I was grateful (and still am!), and even enthusiastic, about whatever little things that would help me get by at the time.

One day I had an interview for my first programming job. I was walking to the train. It was snowing sideways. My feet were going numb from the cold and my umbrella kept flipping inside-out because of the wind. I was happy for the interview, but so depressed that I was broke and so damn cold. I thought to myself, I could really use a good laugh right now. When I looked up, a man was crossing the street and his pants just dropped right down to his ankles. The wind and snow were slapping his pink butt. I laughed so hard that tears froze to my face and I nearly missed my train. I landed my first “real” job that day as an entry-level computer programmer. It was the beginning of a new adventure. I bought a $4 bottle of wine and a $45 winter coat to celebrate. I felt like the richest person in the world.

There’s been a lot of “starting over” in my life. From coffee shops to programming to Wall Street to culinary school to restaurants to catering to yachts to private-chefing to now. I quit my private chef job a few months back so that I could start over, yet again, slavishly following another one of my passions. And as I sit here typing away, my outline for a cookbook that I’ve poured my heart and soul into is in the hands of a big, fancy literary agent in New York City. He saw my win on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games and is interested in seeing what I have to offer. I’m not obsessively checking my email or my cell phone in the meantime. I swear. Ok, yes I am. In many ways, I feel like I did 20 years ago when I was trying so hard to make something of myself. I wonder, will I be slogging through another winter with leaky boots and a thin coat again? Probably not. At least not in the same way. And even if I am, it’s 75 and sunny so who cares? And, I know from experience, that ultimately it will pay off in degrees of happiness. In the meantime, I could really use something to warm me up inside…

So, in homage to humble beginnings, starting over, beans-and-rice budgets and staying warm in a not-so-cold winter – here is my recipe for a hearty black bean soup. I hope it warms you up, feeds your soul and stays within your budget:

Black Bean, Chorizo & Pablano Soup
Serves 4
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Prep Time
30 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 15 min
Prep Time
30 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 15 min
  1. 1 1/2 cups dried black beans, picked through and soaked overnight
  2. 2 carrots, small diced
  3. 2 celery stalks, small diced
  4. 1/2 white onion, small diced
  5. 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  6. 5 ounces Spanish chorizo, small diced
  7. 1 pablano pepper, roasted, seeded, pealed and small diced
  8. 1 bunch lacinato kale, cored and cut into chifonade
  9. Salt to taste
How to cook the black beans
  1. Put the black beans in a medium pot and cover with 5 cups cold water.
  2. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook, covered, until the beans are tender. About 45 minutes to an hour. While the beans are cooking, begin roasting your pablano pepper.
How to roast a pablano pepper
  1. If you have a gas stove, just turn on the flame and set the pepper on the iron grill so that the flames char the skins. If you prefer a more docile method, place the pepper on a sheet pan and stick it under the broiler (or even just on the oven rack works fine - I'm crazy like that), turning occasionally until the skins are black and blistered.
  2. Remove the pepper from the burner/grill/broiler and put it in a covered bowl so that it steams. This will soften the pepper and loosen the skins so they can be easily removed.
  3. Some people rinse peppers under water to get the skin off, but I believe you lose a lot of flavor doing this. An alternative method is to slice the roasted pepper in half and use a pairing knife to scrape out the seeds. Then, flip the pablano over so that it is skin-side up and gently scrape the skins off.
  4. Slice it into thin strips and then a small dice.
Putting it all together
  1. Put a healthy splash of olive oil in a medium soup pot.
  2. Add the chorizo and cook on a medium heat until some of the fat has rendered out of the chorizo and the oil in the pot has turned red.
  3. Add the carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5-10 minutes.
  4. Add the beans and cooking liquid. The chorizo will add a lot of salt once it softens up in the soup, so go light on the salt. You can always add more.
  5. Remove about 2 cups of the soup (more beans than liquid) and pour it in a blender, blend until smooth. Add the puree back to the soup.
  6. Add the kale. Stir and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until soup begins to thicken slightly and the kale is soft.
  7. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with cilantro and eat!
The Wayward Chef



Curry-in-a-hurry Butternut Squash Soup

News Flash: when I get home from work I don’t go to the kitchen and cook myself a 3-course meal. Shocking, I know!

In fact, what I eat at home after cooking all day is probably pretty pathetic. Far too many nights I roll into my kitchen exhausted and smelling like lamb and much like your teenage kid, I stand at the fridge with the door wide open for 20 minutes thinking, there’s nothing to eat. When really, it’s just a disconnect between my brain and mouth because I’ve been cooking all day, tasting all day, but haven’t sat and eaten a proper meal.  And then I’ll graze on condiments – olives, cornichons, cherry tomatoes, a piece of chocolate – and call it a meal. Or, if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll pour myself a bowl of cereal.

But when I’m not utterly exhausted and I do actually feel like cooking for myself, I can totally get into the challenge of making something from a supposed “empty fridge”. It’s like a challenge calling to me to create something really good from whatever paltry scraps I can pull together. But making a good something-from-nothing, for me, means having at least a good arsenal of condiments and spices to work with. Anything that adds a big burst of flavor with minimal effort can turn “nothing” ingredients into something spectacular.

I’m a spice-a-holic if there ever was one. I bring home spices and pastes and weird ingredients from everywhere I travel. Garam masala, 5-spice, dukkah, za’atar, yellow curry powder and myriad curry pastes are all staples in my pantry. Harissa, Sriracha, fish sauce, tapanade, truffle mustard, anchovies and a few quality vinegars are also really handy for big flavor, fast.

Today I had one of those “nothing in the fridge” moments where I figured I’d eat out because I was too lazy to shop or do dishes (I realize I’m crushing your fantasies about how chef’s eat when nobody is around). But I had a small butternut squash from a friend’s garden that had been staring at me from my kitchen window for well over a month, begging to be used. I only had an hour or so before I had to head out the door, but the squash beckoned. The produce in my fridge consisted of pretty much nothing: half an onion, a bulb of garlic, a nub of ginger (all with not much lifespan left in them), one sorry-looking carrot and a few stalks of celery. I gave it all a rough chop. Peeled and seeded the squash and sliced it thin, so it would cook quickly, and then tossed it in a pot with some curry powder a squirt of sriracha and some coconut milk and then pureed in the blender and in 20 minutes: voila! I had a great soup!

This is also where having quality appliances comes in handy. I’ll save my appliance and kitchen equipment rant for another blog rant but in the ongoing Vitamix vs. Blendtec blender wars, in my kitchen, Blendtec wins. The Blendtec has more horsepower than the Vitamix, more settings, costs about $100 less, and I’ve never had one break on me. I bought a new Vitamix recently for a client and the quality just didn’t feel the same as the older ones. It broke within a month so I sent it back. Where was I? Oh yes, when it comes to soup, a good quality blender will turn even raw ingredients into the silkiest soup imaginable. Hence, my partially-cooked-I’m-in-a-hurry butternut squash soup. Enjoy!

Curry-in-a-hurry Butternut Squash Soup
Cristina Topham: 
Recipe type: Soup
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 

  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil
  • ½ onion, sliced
  • ½ inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of your favorite curry powder
  • 1 14oz can of coconut milk
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Salt to taste

  1. Over a medium flame and in a medium pot, add coconut oil. When it has melted and the pot is warm, add the onion, ginger and garlic. Cook until onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the curry powder and cook for 2 minutes, until curry powder is fragrant.
  3. Add remaining ingredients. If coconut milk does not cover everything, add a little broth or water to cover (remember, you can always add but you can’t take away – so add a little liquid and then you can thin the soup as much as you’d like once it is pureed). Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes (unless, like me, you are in a hurry and have a good blender that can puree everything, in which case, simmer for 8 minutes).
  4. Puree the soup in small batches.
  5. Return to the heat and taste for seasoning.



When in Rome… Errrr, Sweden.

Life is so %&#*ing good, I can taste it in my spit.   ~ XXXX, Layer Cake

Being a non-Swede in Sweden, and being asked to make gravlax, is like a non-Catholic in Italy being asked to perform communion. So for two days I was on pins and needles as my gravlax cured in the refrigerator – hoping and praying that it would turn out well and that my experimentat with raw fish wouldn’t kill anyone. At the end of the two days, I removed the salmon from the fridge and unwrapped it. It smelled good, really good.  I began to slice long, thin, pink strips but before I could even put them on a platter for the morning breakfast spread, it was snatched from my cutting board. I waited with baited breath… “Mmmmmm”, The Swedes said. “Mmmmmm”, is always good to hear. I was told it was the best they’d ever had! And since gravlax is, un-officially, the national food of Sweden – I’ll wear that one like a badge of honor, thank you! I laid out of a big platter of my homemade lox alongside thin slices of cucumber and tomatoes, a basket of fresh bread, hard-boiled eggs and cheese and I am proud to announce that I have been unofficially crowned an honorary Swede. And nobody died from eating my raw fish. Yay!

Prep time: 
Total time: 

  • 1 cup fine sea salt
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dill seeds
  • 1 bunch basil, stems and all
  • 2 bunches dill, stems and all
  • 1 salmon filet, approx 3-4 lbs. Scaled, and pin bones removed (Since the salmon is not cooked, use the freshest possible salmon. Fortunately for me, fresh salmon is not in short supply here in Sweden!)

  1. In a small bowl combine salt and sugar.
  2. Rinse and pat salmon dry and lay on cutting board, flesh side up.
  3. Slice salmon in half widthwise. S
  4. prinkle salmon halves with dill seeds and then coat both halves of salmon heavily with salt mixture.
  5. Layer fresh herbs on one side of the salmon, starting with the basil and then the dill.
  6. Sandwich both pieces of salmon together with herbs in between. Sprinkle any remaining salt mixture on salmon skin and around exposed flesh.
  7. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap.
  8. Place salmon sandwich in glass baking dish and place a plate or baking dish on top of it. Weigh the plate down with either two large cans of tomatoes, a few bricks or free-weights between 2 and 4 pounds and place in refrigerator.
  9. Flip the salmon over every 12-hours and replace the weights. The salmon will be ready to eat after 48 hours, but can cure for up to a week. The longer the salmon cures, the texture will become more dense and drier. I usually cure my salmon for 2 to 3 days.
  10. Remove the gravlax from the fridge, unwrap and remove the herbs and slice. If you’re a New Yorker, pile it on a bagel with cream cheese, red onion and capers. But, if you want to enjoy it the Scandinavian way, eat it with cucumbers and tomatoes on fresh brown bread with butter!
SLICING:The rule of thumb with knives is: the thinner the blade, the thinner the slice. When it comes to slicing gravlax, the best knife to use is a long, thin slicer. Make thin slices at a 45 degree angle, against the grain of the flesh of the fish.

Sweden’s National Sweet Tooth

candyThere are a few things that have taken me by surprise in my study of Sweden’s culinary landscape. First: the candy. Every grocery store that I’ve visited has an isle of bulk candy bins that would put Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory to shame. The biggest grocery store, ICA MAX Stormarknad (say that 10 times fast!), must have over 100 bins of candy. The bins contain every flavor and shape of gummy candy – from sweet and sour fruit chews (or winegums, as they’re called here), salted licorice, Swedish fish and coke bottles (coke flavored winegums shaped like bottles) and so on. And, all manner of chocolate: nuts, caramels, chocolate coated marshmallow bears, chocolate coated gummy candies, chocolate drops, hey stacks, etc. Add to that, another smaller isle of “premium” candy bins where premium chocolates come wrapped in pretty jeweled colored foils that remind me of some long lost childhood I never had! It’s a wonder Sweden doesn’t suffer from a national toothache or a severe case of hyperactivity. But maybe that’s why Swedes so often go to Thailand (a nation known for its inexpensive dental care) in the wintertime, to get all of their cavities filled!

Next: ice cream. While I haven’t yet noticed a frozen yogurt epidemic on the same scale as that which is sweeping the United States at the moment, Swedes certainly do love their frozen treats. Store bought ice creams in Sweden come in flavors normally limited to high-end restaurants in the States – rhubarb with cardamom and cinnamon, nougat, lemon-mint sorbet, cactus fruit. And their ice creams are ethereally light and yet still incredibly creamy – a texture I’ve only ever experienced before with ice cream made from a PacoJet. But, my research is not yet complete. I think the Swedish ice cream phenomenon will require more a bit more field-testing.

And finally, the bread and butter. Seriously, what country steals all the thunder for having the best bread? France, no? Baguette, baguette, baguette. You’d think that baguette was the only decent bread available in all of Europe. Well, to hell with the baguette, I say, and to hell with the French, for that matter! The best breads I’ve ever eaten have been in Norway and now, Sweden. Dense, dark, chewy whole grain breads flecked with caraway, flax and sunflower seeds, spiced syrup breads and breads loaded with dried fruits and nuts. Spread with creamy, rich salted or extra-salted butter – it’s like a bite of heaven!

A new addiction, or three, has been born in me. Needless to say, I will not be able to fit into my pants by the end of this trip. Good thing there’s an H&M on every street corner!